On a surprisingly sunny and warm day, as summer began its first turn toward fall, a group of women gathered on the grass overlooking woods extending around them in every direction at Willow River State Park for a session of outdoor yoga.
Some were first-timers, some were regulars who had already hiked, kayaked and more, a couple came with friends and a few came alone, for the Women in the Parks event.
The program is designed to be a comfortable environment for women to get more experience outdoors with other women.
"We know that there's women in the area that want to come to the park but they might feel intimidated," said Ash Goldbeck, one of the program's organizers.
Classes are open to women of all skill levels and experience, and do not have an additional fee.
"We wanted to make it flexible so that anybody could come," Goldbeck said.
In the monthly classes, organized by Goldbeck and Melissa DuPont, women learn how to read a map, compass work, archery and more.
"Each month we have something awesome," Goldbeck said. "It's not your average weekend program."
Classes are casual and friendly, Goldbeck said, creating an environment for the women to learn and get to know each other.
"None of us knew each other when we first got here and now it's comfortable and it's fun," Goldbeck said.
Karen Francisvovic is new to the area, and joined the program to get to know more women. She was hoping to find people to hike and explore with, who had similar interests.
The first class focused on wilderness safety training, and gauged the women's comfort level outside. They were asked how they would feel if they were dropped off in Willow River State Park if left for a day, or for a night.
"I want the girls to feel comfortable outside," Goldbeck said.
Lisa Drury attends the classes with a friend, and enjoys meeting other women and being outside. The classes have exposed her to some activities she's never tried before, like September's yoga session.
"I like that they kind of pull that out of you," Drury said.
The women involved are trained on tools and techniques to not only be able to visit places like Willow River State Park, but to also follow the "leave no trace motto" to have minimal impact on the outdoors.
"To do it respectfully," Goldbeck said. "When you leave, make sure you leave no trace."
The outdoors can be a relaxing escape, and for those who do not feel comfortable in it, or do not have an area like Willow River in their backyard, this program gives them that experience.
"It can really change your whole outlook on everything," Goldbeck said. "It helps with a lot of things."
The year-long program originally required participants to sign up for the whole year's worth of classes, but Goldbeck and DuPont decided to open it up so anyone could come to any of the monthly events.
"We didn't want to make it limited," Goldbeck said.
Now women can come when a class interests them.
Each gathering also has a prize drawing, provided by supporters like Cabela's, Scheels and Sierra Trading Company.
Women in the Parks is run through a grant from Allina Health, and Goldbeck hopes they'll be able to continue the program next year.
The program will continue to reach out further to women who may not have the opportunities to explore the outdoors, Goldbeck said, as well as those who want a chance to gather and enjoy it.
The next Women in the Parks class will be Saturday, Oct. 6 with a hike at Hidden Falls at Kinnickinnic State Park.